Despite playing without starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews and reserve point guard Ronnie Price tonight the Portland Trail Blazers recovered from last night's loss against the Utah Jazz, returning the favor with a 105-99 victory. The key to this win was the same defensive strategy we highlighted last night: double-teaming Utah's big players whenever they touched the ball. In the prior game both the scheme and the rotations came too late and Utah feasted on points from Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. The Blazers didn't repeat that mistake. From the opening tip Portland doubled crisply and hard whenever any enemy big touched the ball, either forcing the offense out of the hands of Utah's power forwards and centers or causing them to shoot over the top instead of in the lane. Utah scored but 18 points in the paint in the first half and would finish the game with 44. This was actually only 2 shy of their total from the last game but you have to consider...
1. The points mostly came late in the game and late in the shot clock, both of which gave the Blazers the advantage as they held the lead for most of the contest.
2. Millsap and Jefferson combined for 36 points on 34 shots last night. Tonight they scored 30 on 29 shots. Though the ratio is similar overall Jefferson watched his attempts plunge from 22 to 13 while Millsap took only 4 more shots and hit only 1 more than he did a game ago. Portland won by 5 points so even holding Utah down by a half dozen made a difference.
The Blazers deserve credit because they stuck to their guns even when the Jazz perimeter players got hot. Marvin Williams had a blistering first quarter. Randy Foye sank 6 threes in this game. But you knew they weren't going to win with those shots. Portland didn't overreact and it paid off.
The Blazers had their own questions to answer on offense. Without Matthews their floor balance got skewed. The Jazz duplicated Portland's strategy, keying on whichever scorer touched the ball. The Blazers' advantage was having multiple types of scorers: Damian Lillard outside, LaMarcus Aldridge inside, and Nicolas Batum to either fire or pass between the two. At least the Jazz had to scramble where the Blazers could simply camp out low.
Portland wasn't successful for most of the first half until Lillard uncorked another huge scoring run in the second quarter. But that wasn't enough and both teams knew it. The Blazers tried to feed Aldridge in the post early in the third period but Utah sent 2-3 guys every time he touched. Even though Aldridge low is usually the right answer, in this case the offense died. But Portland's bench players came to the rescue. (Yes, you read that right.) Nolan Smith looked as shaky as ever with the ball in his hands but seeing the Jazz key on Aldridge and Lillard, he used that Duke education to move effectively without the ball, catching and delivering while defensive backs were turned. Will Barton did a little bit of the same, plus he made some nifty moves into the paint himself. Luke Babbitt stayed on the weak side to receive passes for threes. Between the three of them they'd score 28 points in the game, most of those coming in the second half.
Having to watch five players instead of two foiled the Jazz defense. With their perimeter guys going cold on the other end they had no options but to force the ball inside against double coverage and pray for lucky shots or offensive rebounds. They didn't get enough of either, nor were Foye's late shots enough to bring them home. Still wounded but much more satisfied, the Blazers marched off with a 105-99 win.
You can tell the Blazers won this with straight-up defense because they survived a night in which the Jazz committed only 4 turnovers. Still Utah shot but 43%, hitting 39 of 90 attempts. The Blazers got up far fewer shots but hit at a better clip (51%, 38-75). The Blazers also shot 56% from the arc and drew 28 foul shots to 16 for the Jazz. There wasn't much fancy here. It was just two offenses going against two defenses and Portland edged out Utah with a little more versatility and a little better plan.
This was one of the few games where LaMarcus Aldridge stalled but the Blazers didn't. He shot 8-18 from the field for 18 points and hit only 2-6 from the foul line. However Aldridge looked good defensively tonight thanks to the work of his little buddies. He also grabbed 11 rebounds. He wasn't the answer on offense but he was still part of the solution to the game.
Damian Lillard uncorked another great offensive performance tonight. He scored 8 points in less than 2 minutes in that second quarter. Last night we leaned on him a little for taking over the offense to the possible detriment of his teammates. Tonight's performance was different. That second-period run, for instance, was compact: 4 shots to make 8 points on 3-4 shooting. Also nothing had been working for Portland's offense before he kick-started it. But then he got off the horse and let other people ride. He finished with 8 assists and 23 points on 9-17 shooting, 3-5 from the arc. If you're looking for a down side, his 4 turnovers were mostly of the "AUUUGGGH!" variety, either straight off the dribble or with passes that shouldn't have been made. But he gave the Blazers confidence they could win this game after a poor start.
Nicolas Batum had a great first quarter passing and shooting, fell prey to some frustrating turnovers and the propensity to over-pass again, but he turned it around later on, helping to key the ball-movement which would eventually bring the Blazers the win. His 9 assists helped win those crucial 1st and 4th periods for the Blazers when it was touch and go. He also scored 12 with 10 rebounds, narrowly missing another triple-double.
J.J. Hickson's scoring got inflated by late-game intentional-foul free throws but hey, he HIT those free throws when the Blazers needed them to stay on top. He's shooting in the mid-60's on foul attempts for the year but when the game's in doubt he's pure gold. He scored 21 on 6-11 shots and had 11 rebounds. Like Batum he peaked, faded, then reappeared. Like Aldridge his defense was made to look better through the help of his smaller teammates.
Note: In case you weren't keeping count that's 32 total rebounds from Portland's starting front line. The Jazz starting frontcourt managed but 20 between them.
Victor Claver started the game in place of Matthews, scoring 3 with 3 rebounds on 1-4 shooting in 18 minutes. He and Meyers Leonard were the only Blazers who didn't have a standout game. Leonard got 2 rebounds in 6 minutes and didn't look great.
Nolan Smith: 5-7, 2-3 from distance, 13 points, 2 assists in 18 minutes. Hats off to Smith and to off-ball movement!
Will Barton: 3-6, 7 points, 2 assists, 3 rebounds in 16 minutes.
Luke Babbitt: 2-4 from distance, 8 points, 5 rebounds in 24 minutes.
Last night Portland's bench scored 10 points in 70 minutes. Tonight they scored 28 points in 58 minutes. Big difference.
It was neither the easiest nor the prettiest win in the world but it was a good one. Let's hope everybody enjoyed it because after the Superbowl the Blazers face a 6-game road trip before they get to rest for the All-Star break. If you know how that's going to go you've better vision than I.
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